For the Love of Diamonds: Diamonds Are Forever 60th Anniversary

Tom Cull of Literary007.com takes us through Fleming’s trans-continental thriller as we mark the 60th year since Diamonds Are Forever was first published in the UK.

“Bond put down the piece of quartz and gazed again into the heart of the diamond. Now he could understand the passion that diamonds had inspired through the centuries, the almost sexual love they aroused among those who handled them and cut them and traded in them. It was domination by a beauty so pure that it held a kind of truth, a divine authority before which all other material things turned, like the bit of quartz, to clay. In these few minutes Bond understood the myth of diamonds, and he knew that he would never forget what he had suddenly seen inside the heart of this stone…”

Ian Fleming said this of Diamonds Are Forever in an interview with the Daily Express in 1956:

“I’ve put everything into this except the kitchen sink. Can you think of a plot about a kitchen sink for the next one? Otherwise I am lost.”

And indeed he did. Whereas some of his books relied heavily on his imagination, this vastly under-rated fourth novel published 60 years ago in 1956, required lots of first-hand research and travel.

Fleming’s twin love of travel and ‘things’ were indulged to their fullest potential in this novel. The central plot revolved around diamond smuggling – a hot topic at the time – and like many, he was enchanted by their lustre, permanence and chatoyance:

“When jewels have chatoyance the colour in the lustre changes with movement in the light, and the colour of this girl’s eyes seemed to vary between a light grey and a deep grey-blue.” (Diamonds Are Forever, 1956)

He was also fascinated in the power and allure of these jewels that could provoke people, even of good standing, to smuggle them.

In his book The Man With The Golden Typewriter, Fergus Fleming (Ian Fleming’s nephew) describes how in 1954, while coming home from Jamaica, his uncle saw an advertisement in American Vogue that read ‘A Diamond is Forever’. He reported on this for one of his Atticus columns in The Sunday Times commenting in his piece upon the fifth largest diamond ever recorded at the time on June 20th.

Fleming’s enthralment with diamonds would need to be tied to a thrilling narrative to become the core of the new Bond novel; one possible source of inspiration for the plot was the true story of a former geologist for De Beers who, while prospecting in a forbidden zone in Namibia, had managed to hide a container of some 1400 diamonds. On December 21, 1952, a small aircraft landed on the diamond-strewn beach in the forbidden zone, whereby the geologist got out of the plane and retrieved the cache of diamonds that he had squirrelled away six months earlier. The geologist and his pilot were spotted and arrested.

The opening chapter of Diamonds Are Forever– ‘The Pipeline’ – is very reminiscent of this true-life event and brilliantly describes the details of a smuggling operation conducted by the Spang brothers. As Fleming later told the Daily Express in 1964: “I always study the best authorities on a particular subject.” These authorities included De Beers themselves and former head of MI5 Sir Percy Sillitoe of the International Diamond Security Organisation, who later would help advise him on his non-fiction work The Diamond Smugglers. De Beers allowed him to watch the cutting and sorting of the diamonds, and Sillitoe’s name would make it into the novel as M tells Bond in chapter 2: “You probably saw in the papers that De Beers took on our friend Sillitoe when he left MI5, and he’s out there now, working in with the South African security people.”

After confining Bond to a domestic English setting in Moonraker, both Fleming, Bond, and apparently their readers, were ready for some foreign travel. What better excuse for Fleming to visit his old Eton chum Ivar Bryce? Bryce who was now in Vermont at Black Hole Hollow Farm with his new wife, the millionairess Josephine Hart.

Bryce had played an important role in Fleming’s life as a friend, confidante and business partner, while his regular summer excursions to this idyllic spot in the Green Mountains of Vermont gave Ian the kind of relaxation and adventure that fed his imagination. He and Bryce would take road trips in Bryce’s Studillac car to various places, notably across the border to New York state to Saratoga and the famous racetrack and mud baths. The resort was a favourite of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt known for its healing properties that helped his polio, as Fleming alludes to in his novel: “People drift up to take the waters and the mud baths for their troubles, rheumatism and such like, and it’s like any other off-season spa anywhere in the world.“

In chapter 10 entitled ‘Studillac to Saratoga’, Fleming beautifully describes the atmosphere at the racetrack, “It’s probably the smartest race-meeting in America, and the place crawls with Vanderbilts and Whitneys.” And the scenes with Bond and Felix Leiter could well be describing Fleming and Bryce. The American artist and literary Bond fan Gerald Wadsworth commented on the accuracy of the US setting:

“When Bond and Felix Leiter drive up to Saratoga Springs in the Studillac, Bond is treated to an exercise in American car culture – a black Studebaker convertible with a Cadillac engine, special transmission, brakes and suspension, designed by Raymond Loewy, and could run circles around Corvette’s and Thunderbird’s of the day. Their route to Saratoga was detailed, not unlike when Bond would travel through Europe. Roads, highways, turnpikes and various elements of local laws would be routinely described to the reader.”

Another one of their gang was Ernie Cuneo, whose name features heavily as an undercover cab driver, Ernie Cureo. No argument who this was based on. Famous gangster Lucky Luciano also gets a mention, who later featured again in Fleming’s Thrilling Cities travelogue.

Fleming’s fascination with American gangster culture would feature in a few of his novels (Goldfinger, for example), but in Diamonds Are Forever, he placed it at the fore in the form of the Spang brothers, Wint and Kidd and Shady Tree. The setting, style and tone of this novel reads more like one of  Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novels; indeed, as the great man noted himself, Fleming’s proficiency for setting was one for his most unique strengths:

“Fleming can go to a town for the background of a new novel, and in three days he will have mapped up every detail of that town.”

Fleming was not immune from criticism however, and his friend and peer Chandler knowingly jibed Fleming for forgetting to “have a glass of iced water on the table while he wrote about Las Vegas.” In Chandler’s well-qualified review in The Sunday Times, he criticised the book for a certain amount of padding, which Fleming disagreed with:

“I find technical details of a place like Las Vegas so fascinating that I put them in over-generously.” He went on.

“I quite admit to my tendency of overloading my books with Baedekerish information, but Chandler is wrong in thinking this was ‘padding’ which I abhor in other writers.” (The Man With The Golden Typewriter, Fergus Fleming)

Chandler did however finish his review with a resounding endorsement of Fleming’s ability to please his American audience:

“I have left the remarkable thing about this book to the last. And that it is written by an Englishman. The scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other writer who has accomplished this.” (The Sunday Times, March 25, 1956)

Finally, and not least, is the wonderful Tiffany Case (a nod to Tiffany & Co. presumably), who is one of the very few women that earns an extended stay at Bond’s Chelsea flat. A diamond in the rough herself, if you will forgive the pun, Tiffany has a troubled past and gets mixed up with the Spang brothers in their diamond smuggling racket. Tiffany and Bond are kindred spirits in many ways; loners who struggle with attachment which leads to some particularly reflective conversations about love and marriage. Fleming’s writing here perhaps reflected by his own cynical views on matrimony by this time, a few years into his own marriage with Ann Fleming.

“Are you married?” She paused. “Or anything?”

“No. I occasionally have affairs.”

“So you’re one of those old-fashioned men who like sleeping with women. Why haven’t you ever married?”

“I expect because I think I can handle life better on my own. Most marriages don’t add two people together. They subtract one from the other.”

Tiffany Case thought this over. “Maybe there’s something in that,” she said finally. “But it depends what you want to add up to. Something human or something inhuman. You can’t be complete by yourself.”

Diamonds Are Forever is unique in the Bond canon as it is one of the most true to life stories Fleming wrote. Take the road trip with him once again.

Facsimile inside blurb DAFread